Diplomat: Junta Leaders Blocking Aid to Myanmar Conditions are worsening in Myanmar as hungry survivors wait among the dead for help after a huge cyclone hit the Southeast Asian nation over the weekend. The top U.S. diplomat in the country is predicting that the death toll could rise as high as 100,000, from the official tally of 22,500.
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U.S. Diplomat: Junta Leaders Block Aid

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Diplomat: Junta Leaders Blocking Aid to Myanmar

U.S. Diplomat: Junta Leaders Block Aid

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

As of this morning, the death toll in Myanmar continues to climb well into the tens of thousands, yet the military junta is still keeping out all but a trickle of international aid. Myanmar's military rulers are coming under increasing pressure to act and to permit aid workers waiting in neighboring Thailand to get in and begin relief efforts.

In an early morning development, the AP reported that the United Nations says it now has permission to send in planes. As for American offers to help, the U.S. is still waiting for the country's leaders to approve sending its aid flights.

Shari Villarosa is the U.S. charge d'affairs in Yangon, we spoke with her earlier this morning.

I gather that you think there could be up to 100,000 people dead there in Myanmar. How did you come up with that number?

Ms. SHARI VILLAROSA (U.S. Charge D'Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar): Actually, this was an estimate from an NGO who works in the delta region. Everyday, the government is revising upwards their figures of dead. Their most recent figures are 23,000 dead and 42,000 missing. Most of the missing people we fear were swept out to sea. Parts of the delta nobody's even got to yet. So we do think that the figures could climb. We don't have any precise figures apart from what the government announces, but they have been increasing the numbers on a daily basis.

MONTAGNE: The U.S. wants to send in aid and also give permission to have its military planes fly in relief supplies. Where is that now? How far has the U.S. gotten in getting anything in at all?

Ms. VILLAROSA: We have already dispersed $250,000 to three U.N. organizations already here on the ground. The president has announced that he's making available another three million, plus if there's more in addition to that. And then many, many other countries around the world have also announced a willingness to donate many millions of dollars worth of goods and commodities.

The problem has been that the disaster assistance experts that come in, quickly see what is needed where, figure out the logistics, coordinate so that, you know, one place doesn't get too many and another place is neglected, they're not letting those people in yet. The United States has requested a disaster assistance response team be permitted to enter numerous - I think I saw something like 35 other countries have indicated the same thing, the U.N. as well.

I understand the U.N. has gotten in four of the many people that they are asking to come in to help. But this is going to be a massive relief effort.

MONTAGNE: Now, I just heard you to say only four U.N. - one might call aid workers are those trying to get aid into the country. Four have gotten in. What is holding this up? What is the government saying, doing?

Ms. VILLAROSA: Many countries have urged them to grant either for these other people that are standing by, waiting. We have a 10-person team standing by in Bangkok ready to come in, as soon as they give us the word.

MONTAGNE: I know you're a diplomat, but at this point in time, how stunning is that that so little aid and, really, aid workers that you can count on one hand are getting in there?

Ms. VILLAROSA: This is a very strange country. My hope is that as the generals realize the scale of this calamity, that they will eventually decide that they are going to need international assistance in order to get the relief to the millions of Burmese victims.

MONTAGNE: This cyclone came at a delicate political time, if you will, for the military junta that runs the country. A referendum is scheduled there for this Saturday on a new constitution. Is it possible that the government is waiting till after that referendum to open its doors?

Ms. VILLAROSA: Possibly. They are suspicious of foreigners and foreign interference in the referendum. So, after May 10th. Now, the referendum will not be taking place in the storm-affected areas. They've already announced that. So it doesn't make that much sense since the referendum's not going to take place in Rangoon and the delta anyway, so they could be letting in the assistance now.

The problem is, is that the longer the delay, the more problems are creating down the road, particularly disease.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. VILLAROSA: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Shari Villarosa is the U.S. charge d'affairs in Yangon, Myanmar.

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